Generation Awkward

The turtle is dead. Long live the turtle!

Kumquats. Ice dancing. Middle-aged people in love. College students who wear pantsuits. Addressing someone with the wrong gender. That guy in section who responds to the reading with passion and insight. Realizing you’ve been mispronouncing your roommate’s last name for the past three years.

That summer your best friend spent interning at Lehman Brothers.

There’s only one word for these things. Awkward. And if you weren’t cringing or muttering it to yourself as you read, you’ve been somewhere else for the past half-decade.

These are awkward times we live in. As early as 2006, college students were editorializing about the rise of the awkward turtle and its cultural significance. But now, as the turtle vanishes from the common hand lexicon, even the Washington Post is starting to notice the awkward zeitgeist.

Yet as its staying power indicates—even with the turtle on its last, feebly gesticulating legs—awkwardness is more than a passing phase. Awkward isn’t a mere word like “rad” or “phat” or “e-zines,” embraced by media outlets and hopelessly dated in six months. It isn’t even being misused. Awkward is a state of being. And it has come to define our generation. From the Clinton scandal—or, as we remember it, that time in fifth grade when our parents were suddenly compelled to explain the concept of oral sex—to the Kanye outburst after Katrina, our lives have been a nonstop parade of awkward. Even’s evocative Awkward Rap—“If you say ‘How are you?’ I’ll say ‘Not much!’/My hand and your boob accidentally touch…If I see you waving, my hand goes in the air,/Even though you’re waving to that guy over there”—fails to capture the full impact. Forget Gen XXY, or whatever our most current label is. We are Generation Awkward.

Previous generations had awkward phases. Woodstock? Awkward. The 80’s? Awkward. Valley Forge? I missed it, but I’ve heard things. But somehow they weathered them and went on to live productive lives. Growing up used to mean overcoming your fear of awkwardness and calling Peggy Sue on the rotary phone to invite her to a sock hop. But thanks to technology, our generation has been able to bypass those stages. Why call Peggy when you can IM her instead? Not only won’t she hear your voice trembling, but you’ll also have time to come up with witty, inventively spelled retorts.

But now that we’ve dodged these awkward milestones, we’ve become defined by our desperate efforts to evade awkwardness. Everything that marks us as a generation stems from our fear of the awkward, from our internet obsession to our political preferences. Consider college social culture. Relationships are awkward. Hookups? Like relationships, but without the awkward parts where you go bowling and talk about your feelings. Calling people on the phone? Awkward. Texting? Less awkward, unless you tend to type in complete sentences with proper capitalization.

Indeed, anti-awkwardness explains the ironic, mildly anti-intellectual culture that many of our generation, at least on the surface, seem to espouse. Talking in section? Awkward. Enthusiasm? Awkward. Having serious beliefs and thoughts about issues? Awkward.

Poetry? Awkward. Poetry readings? I’m wincing just typing this. In general, sincerity is awkward. So are most things that require effort or enthusiasm, which explains the awkwardness of rhythmic gymnastics. Serious beliefs are awkward, especially religious ones. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with them, it’s just that people’s real, heart-felt, deeply held beliefs are, well, “not easy to handle or deal with, requiring great skill, ingenuity, or care”—in a word, awkward. (Merriam Webster) . And on the whole, our generation would rather disengage than risk stepping on an awkward landmine. This is why we don’t have relationships or read books anymore.

Awkwardness even explains our politics. McCain? Awkward. Obama? If awkward has an antithesis, it is probably Barack Obama.

But does awkward have an antithesis? This is perhaps the most puzzling aspect of this generation-defining term. Awkward has no real antonym—the words that come closest, from “cool” to “pleasant” all fall somehow short. Indeed, in our generation’s frenzied opposition to awkwardness, we have become the very thing we so desperately sought to avoid. Instead of risking mispronouncing our roommate’s name, we spend three years coming up with inventive terms of endearment. Rather than call someone, we send text messages that take up three whole screens.

Perhaps Generation A will have to grow up soon and face the awkward music. But why rush things? We’re still in college. We’ll have plenty of time to talk face to face when the economy crumbles, obliging us to sell our cell phones, dress in drab burlap ensembles, and stand in long lines waiting for soup. There’s a reason we consider sincere intellectual engagement awkward. The longer we can postpone that, the more time we can spend making lists of verboten terms like “moist,“ “dank,” and “tender” and quietly hoping someone else will fix the economy.

Yes, we’re generation awkward. We’re here. And we’re awkward. So, get used to it, um, I guess.

Alexandra A. Petri ’10 is an English and classics concentrator living in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.